The Puzzling Apologies for Woodrow Wilson’s Racism in A. Scott Berg’s Recent Biography

tags: racism, Woodrow Wilson

Dr. Stern is the author of numerous articles and Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003), The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (2005), and The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality (2012), in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series. He was Historian at the JFK Library from 1977 to 2000.

There is no longer any question that Woodrow Wilson’s record on race, before and after the presidency, was often evaded or explained away by historians. The same was true of many popular US history textbooks. In the last several decades, however, the racial views of Wilson the man and the policies of  Wilson the president, particularly the establishment of racial segregation in the D.C. federal departments, have been recognized as an important part of his historical legacy.

In short, the cat is out of the historical bag and silence or evasion are no longer credible. Instead, it is time to try to explain that legacy, put it in historical context, while we keep in mind the danger of imposing present values and assumptions on the past. In that spirit, this article will explore how a 2013 biographer of Wilson—A. Scott Berg—handled this historically and politically-loaded topic.

Berg, winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Charles Lindbergh, has admitted to being a Wilson enthusiast who, as teenager, thought of the 28th president as one of the historical “gods” and put his picture on his bedroom wall. It is striking, however, to read the chapter titles of his Wilson biography, each accompanied by a citation from the Old or New Testaments presumably applicable to Wilson’s life: “Ascension; Providence; Eden; Sinai; Reformation; Advent; Paul; Disciples; Baptism; Ecclesiastes; Deliverance; Armageddon; Isiah; Gethsemane; Passion; Pieta, and Resurrection.” No, this is not a book about the life of Christ; but the metaphor is rather unsettling in a political biography.

Berg insists that Wilson, “a son of four Confederate states,” understood “how racism stained the region; and he spent a lifetime sorting out his own feelings on that subject.” But Berg also contends that Wilson “was not, in truth, a dyed-in-the-wood Southerner” because his grandparents were immigrants and his father was born in Ohio. (Was Paul Revere not a dyed-in-the-wool American patriot because his father was born in France?) In fact, Wilson’s father was an outspoken defender of slavery and the Confederacy and his son “would repeatedly remind people ‘that the only place in the country, the only place in the world, where nothing has to be explained to me is the South.’ ” The Wilson family moved to South Carolina in 1870 when the future president was just shy of 14 and Berg notes that they “arrived [in Columbia] amidst its congenial but unsettling segregation.” Unsettling how, why, and to whom? Five years later, when Wilson entered Princeton (still The College of New Jersey), a student remembered him “taking the Southern side and getting quite bitter” in political discussions. The young Wilson acknowledged that slavery had damaged the society and economy of the South, but as Berg notes, he took no moral stand. Teaching subsequently at Bryn Mawr, he was remembered by the daughter of Massachusetts abolitionists as “a Southerner who had no special sympathy for Negroes as human beings.”

Later, as president of Princeton, Wilson “envisioned an intellectual utopia, a community of the mind,” but Princeton “had been the only major college in the North” that did not admit blacks. Wilson declared that “the whole temper and tradition of the place are such that no Negro has ever applied for admission.” When a black student from Virginia wrote directly to Wilson himself, he replied that “it is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.” Berg also reveals that Wilson opposed TR’s appointment of a black Collector of the Port of Charleston, SC, as “an unwise piece of bravado” because a black man with authority over white merchants was “too much … to stand” and that he told “darky” jokes in Negro dialect, but was “never malicious” and with “no offense intended.” Based on what evidence? And, despite declaring that Wilson’s racial views “may have evolved slightly” at Princeton and that he was “fairly centrist” on race during his academic years, Berg acknowledges that “no racial advances would be made during Wilson’s tenure” and that his “thoughts, words, and actions were, nonetheless, indubitably racist.” He nonetheless asserts that Wilson “wrestled with the question of race, without ever divining a solution,” but provides no evidence that he ever seriously questioned traditional Southern views in sorting out or wrestling with America’s racial dilemma before his presidency.

In 1912, after less than two years as governor of New Jersey, during which no blacks were appointed to his administration, Wilson was elected President. During the campaign he had promised to deal “fairly and justly” with the Negro, to provide “not mere grudging justice but justice executed with liberality and cordial good feeling”—which earned the endorsement of prominent black leaders, including Niagara Movement founder W.E. B. DuBois and Boston journalist William Monroe Trotter.

Almost a third of Washington’s 350,000 people were black, Berg notes, when Wilson took office; most were poor and concentrated in subservient positions as domestics, waiters, servants, and manual laborers. “For the most part,” Berg observes, “Negroes knew their place.” But, as a result of the 1883 Pendleton Act creating the Civil Service, a small number of blacks had risen to middle class or even upper middle class status, especially in the Post Office and Treasury Departments. Many whites, Berg explains, could not accept that all applicants, regardless of race, were, even in theory, being treated on an equal footing. 

Wilson, Berg reasons, hoped “to promote racial progress—equal opportunities and peaceful coexistence—by shocking the social system as little as possible.” He concluded that “Only one solution might avert upheaval and allow for social evolution to take its course.” The president therefore approved recommendations by several Southern cabinet members to establish legal segregation (Jim Crow) in the DC civil service as “a logical way to avoid [racial] friction,” especially by eliminating the intolerable practice of black men having authority over white women. This change, Wilson “convinced himself,” would spur the evolution of a new and clear cut division of labor and social status for both races after slavery.

This decision did not sit well with the black political activists. Late in 1914, Trotter, the black Boston journalist who’d supported Wilson’s election in 1912, led a group to meet with the president in the White House and made no effort to hide his disillusionment and anger. Wilson argued that segregation was not anti-negro, but actually in their best interest. “Let’s leave politics out of it,” Wilson demanded, since this was “a human problem, not a political problem.” Trotter accused him of creating “a new freedom” for white Americans and a “new slavery for your ‘Afro-American fellow citizens.’” “That did it,” Berg declares. Wilson lashed out at the journalist for his “tone” and “Trotter [soon] led his colleagues to the street.” 

Wilson did not regret the encounter “for any substantive reason,” Berg acknowledges, but only because he was “sucker punched” into showing his anger and ordered Trotter’s group to leave. Wilson later admitted, “When the Negro delegate threatened me [?], I was damn fool enough to lose my temper and point them to the door.” The president did not seem at all conflicted or troubled by Trotter’s insistence that segregation was inherently unjust. He regretted only his behavior and made no effort, despite arguing that this was a human not a political problem, to sort out or wrestle with the human implications of racial segregation. The mainstream press stressed his justified reaction to “Negro impudence.”

Berg’s generous interpretation of Wilson’s intentions—using segregation to reduce social friction and promote racial progress—is unpersuasive and short on historical context. Rather, Wilson was more likely aiming, whether consciously or not, to legally reestablish the natural social order—namely the white supremacy which had been disrupted by the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The Compromise of 1877 committed the federal government to ending political and social interference with internal Southern institutions. As Wilson later wrote, “The supremacy of white people was henceforth assured in the administration of the Southern states.” Racism actually grew far more elaborate and nationally respectable after Reconstruction, sparking a noxious outburst of popular racist literature (such as Charles Carroll, The Negro: A Beast, 1900, and Thomas R. Dixon, The Clansman, 1905), as well as race riots in cities around the nation and an epidemic of lynching in the South.

With slavery abolished, the institutional mechanism of racial domination was gone forever, and Southern whites, with increasing indifference in the North, turned to creating a legally separate and unequal status for blacks that would redefine white supremacy for the new post-slavery era. The sectional compromise and reconciliation that ended Reconstruction, “Reunion and Reaction” as C. Vann Woodward called it, explicitly abandoned any concern for the rights of black Americans. That analysis is backed up by the historical evidence—notwithstanding that Wilson “convinced himself” (and apparently Berg as well) of the praiseworthiness of his motives.